John Cage And Improvisation


Art is sort of an experimental station in which one tries out living.
-John Cage

The American experimental composer John Cage once said that he didn’t believe in improvising as a composing technique. The reason is that when we improvise we only play what we already know.

But that has not been my experience. When I improvise—not all that skillfully, usually lost and barely hanging on, but in the moment, connecting my listening with the sounds I’m making—I often encounter novel sound combinations. Contra to Cage, I don’t have the feeling of playing what I already know; in fact, when I listen back to some of these improvisations I find them pleasurably unknown to me—I have no idea about the basis upon which I made decisions in the moment to make the sounds. For me the discovery process inside improvising seems to involve going out on a performance limb and then free-falling. Thinking through it comes later.

So when Cage says he doesn’t believe in improvising, I wonder: Could Cage improvise? Could he elicit sound combinations he found pleasing from instruments in real time, without a definite goal and without recourse to what he already knew? The sound and flow of some of his early pieces such as the beautiful In A Landscape or the gamelan-esque Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, suggest the composer had some interest in performance before theoretical concerns became paramount. This brings me to another thought: Did Cage perhaps turn his back on improvisation because it didn’t have a place within his rigorously conceptualized system of using chance procedures (such as the I-Ching or rolling dice) as a system by which to organize music? What I find odd is that if Cage believed that “art is sort of an experimental station in which one tries out living”, why wouldn’t he avail himself of improvising, that ultimate living strategy available to us all? Was improvising somehow un-composerly, simply too accessible, too universal, too human?

Notes On David Salle’s “How To See”


“To take a work’s psychic temperature, look at its surface energy.”
– David Salle, How To See, p. 15.

David Salle’s How To See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking About Art is a superb collection of writings about understanding visual art in terms of its intrinsic affective qualities rather than in terms of what it may express about the world or how it fits into a popular theory of interpretation. “Theory abounds, but concrete visual perception is at a low ebb” (2) Salle tells us. The author is an accomplished artist himself and in How To See he draws on his experience to engage with the works of a variety of contemporary artists including Edward Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons, Alex Katz, and many others. Salle’s go-to methodology is to notice, as he takes measure of a piece of art, “what it is you actually find yourself thinking about” (7). Questions flow from here: What makes a work of art tick? What makes it good? What makes it interesting? These questions get us on a path to understanding what Alex Katz aptly describes as an artwork’s “inside energy” (5).

For Salle, an artwork’s qualities exist in a form independent from what the artist may have intended. Moreover, the content of the artwork is more than a sum of cultural signs. The central problem of criticism then, is figuring out how to “talk about art without invoking the ‘isms,’ or resorting to generalities” (5). Where do we turn, Salle asks, to find a vocabulary that communicates what it feels like to see? The essays about artists and their art in How To See offer an informed storytelling by an author whose perceptions are grounded in a lifetime of creating. It’s this grounded experience that leads Salle to say that what reveals an artwork’s nature and quality is “the specific inflection and touch that goes into its making” (15). If any artist’s work is a long-term research project to reconcile form and content (69), then so too is the critic’s long-term project a matter of reconciling content with interpretive form as he or she figures out a way to convey art’s ever-delicate balance of aesthetics and mechanics (113).

At the end of How To See Salle includes a list of thought-provoking exercises for anyone wishing to engage more deeply with art. (As I read I of course thought about how these prompts might apply to musical examples.) Here are four of my favorites that deserve wider sharing:

Build your own analogies. For each work of art, make a sentence that begins “This is a work of art that…” and complete the analogy (244).

Compare and contrast. “Compare two works of art that are stylistically similar but of different intensities” (244).

Similes. Describe a work of art with a sentence that begins “This is a work that puts me in the mind of…” (245).

Where would it feel at home? “Imagine ten works of art of diverse styles and give the ideal place where each would be seen” (246).

Timeline: A Bell Pattern Who Traveled Far

Imagine that you’re a bell pattern.

Your name is Timeline.

You were born somewhere in West Africa.

And you sound like this: 3 + 3 + 2.

That’s eight counts long but unevenly divided into two threes and one two.

People like you because your unusual design makes you syncopated, endlessly interesting, and fun to hang out with.

In fact, as a kid you loved to play with dance drumming groups in the village where you grew up.

You hardly ever slept!

You were the little guy who repeated your high-pitched part insistently while the other musicians smiled and played their own angular patterns. Everything meshed together like a finely woven kente cloth that spun itself out and out and out–a communal musical loom.

Since traveling to the Americas centuries ago (itself a long story) your services have been in high demand in all kinds of music, far too numerous to track. But even today everyone wants a part of your designs, your energy, your rhythmic wonder.
You’re a hit machine! Listen to yourself in some pop hits of the moment for instance:

In the guitar part in “Don’t Let Me Down” by The Chainsmokers:

In the keyboard part in “This Is What You Came For” by Calvin Harris:

In the keyboard part in “Cheap Thrills” by Sia:

In the guitar part in “Treat You Better” by Shawn Mendes:

And with little variations (you’re easily bored) in the keyboard part “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” by Mike Posner (Seeb remix):

Well done Timeline. You’re a bell pattern who traveled far.

Notes On An R&B Concert

We arrived somewhat late into D’Angelo’s set at the Forest Hills Tennis club on a warm early evening in June, but we could hear the bass frequencies from several blocks away. Emerging from the stairwell into section six of what used to be a tennis court felt like entering a party with everyone facing a giant boombox; the music was pleasantly loud—loud enough that you could feel the drum hits vibrating your body. Our seats were in the very last row, with a view downwards. It was hard to see the performers as anything more than stick figures hundreds of yards away and our distance from the stage created a disconnect between seeing and hearing: the band’s gestures were always a half second ahead of their sounds, making their playing look like an out of sync karaoke performance.

But everything about this show was live and D’Angelo’s vocal performance was excellent. His voice does all the things a great R&B voice should, and he has a masterly sense of pacing, building a song without you realizing what’s happening. For a while it just sounds like repetition but then suddenly—kapoww!!—there’s a tutti stop and start, a hit on the downbeat a few times, a reset, and you realize how complete is his control of your sense of time unfolding. No doubt the band rehearsed these too numerous to count stops and starts and shifts of texture, but still they sounded spontaneous—like an endless stream of micro-variation. In D’Angelo’s hands, a four-minute song easily becomes double that which is remarkable because you wouldn’t think that a few chords and 4/4 backbeat could sustain this kind of development, but they can. It’s all about the variations.

Looking around me during the performance, I was struck by how useful D’Angelo’s music was to so many different people, how everyone was adopting it for their own ends, maybe even how people were remembering when they first heard it. Over there, couples swaying to the music together. Over here, three women multitasking—taking selfies together while singing along. In front of the stage I saw what looked like audience members having emotional meltdowns from being within ten feet of the famed singer. No matter where they were sitting or standing, everyone here was a fan and knew the big hits like “Brown Sugar” (even me), turning some songs into massive sing-along choral pieces.

I was particularly struck by the funky virtuosity of D’Angelo’s drummer, Chris Dave. On one song he did something with his hi hat playing—playing off-beat hits that appeared to move further and further off the downbeats by degrees of a sixteenth note which had the effect of making his snare hits on 2 and 4 sound increasingly unlikely to happen at the right time, yet somehow he kept it together. It was a kind of aural illusion as Dave played with the audience’s sense of the downbeat’s inevitability; the effect deepened the groove and made it all that more funky by inserting chaos into the rhythmic flow. You never knew how would get back to beat one, but he always did.

As Dave played what sounded to me like patterns that traveled further and further out from the constraints of the 4/4 R&B beat, I realized that after D’Angelo’s voice, funky grooves were the most important aspect of this concert. It was the grooves that made D’Angelo’s songs pop and so on our way home after the show I thought about all the good things good grooves do:

groove is what the musicians make together;
groove is what sets the parameters for the musicians to go off of and return to;
groove is what the audience responds to and interacts with—
what they sway and dance to;
groove gives the audience a way to evaluate the effectiveness of the music
(not once did the groove drag or rush; it was in complete control of itself, taking us along for its surprising ride)
groove is what suggests other things outside of music;
groove is what makes this music what it is.

On The Drumming Of Tony Allen


In his memoir Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat (co-authored with Michael Veal, Duke University Press, 2013), the eminent Nigerian drummer recalls the influence of American jazz innovators on his own musicianship. It was in the playing of the African Americans such as Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, and Max Roach that Allen heard a familiar sound:

“The way they were drumming, it had all the spirituality and all the celebration in it. It wasn’t English. It wasn’t Western. It wasn’t what Gene Krupa was doing. It was a whole different language. We should have been playing the drum set like that in Nigeria. After all, it originally came from here. They took it, went there to the Americas, polished it, and sent it back to us in Africa.”

“Guys like Max and Elvin and Blakey and Philly Joe [Jones], they were telling a story on the drums. Krupa wasn’t doing that. These guys were telling a story by playing different rhythms, and they were doing it with independent coordination. That’s the way the drums should be played, man” (46).

Intriguingly, part of Allen’s inspiration for his polyrhythmic Afrobeat style came from his initial misunderstanding of what he heard the American jazz drummers doing on their recordings. “To me it was impossible” he said, “that it was only one guy playing all this stuff” (50). Allen recreated the sound of what he thought was more than one drummer playing at once.

Here is Allen drumming Afrobeat in the recording studio. Notice how supremely light and relaxed his touch is:

My full review of the book is here.